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Syria’s difficult rebirth

Commentary: After avoiding defeat in the civil war, Bashar al-Assad’s regime cannot easily tackle the problem of rebuilding the country. Assad finds himself needing to reconcile the difficult requirements of definitively defeating the insurgency, resolving the very severe economic situation and coexisting with the presence of cumbersome allies Russia and Iran

It is now ten years since a peaceful demonstration against Bashar al-Assad’s regime organized by students in Deraa was brutally repressed by police and government forces, thus triggering a chain of events that plunged Syria into a terrible civil war.

The fighting – which saw the total destruction of historic cities such as Aleppo and Raqqa, the UNESCO heritage site of Palmyra and a large part of the capital Damascus – caused the death of some 250,000 fighters of all sides of the conflict (loyalist soldiers, ISIS guerrillas, Kurdish irredentist fighters, Islamist militants of the Syrian Liberation Army, militiamen of the Syrian Democratic Forces), as well as the death of at least 230,000 civilians, victims of the brutal occupation by the troops of the Islamic Caliphate or “collateral victims” of the fighting and bombing of villages and towns.

The civil conflict quickly turned into a “small world war”, with the armed intervention of various extra-regional players: Turkey on the side of Islamist rebels; Russia and Iran supporting the government in Damascus, and the United States supporting the Kurds and the “democrats” of the “Syrian Democratic Forces”.

Over the last ten years, 5.6 million Syrians have fled the country and are living precariously in refugee camps in the neighboring countries of the Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.

6.7 million people have had to leave their homes and are considered “internally displaced”, i.e. refugees within Syria’s borders, while at least 5 million people – trapped in the north-west of Syria and in the Idlib region, where scattered troops of the Islamic Caliphate are still operating – are in need of humanitarian assistance.

According to data from the UN Refugee Agency, over 13 million Syrians have lost everything and are surviving on government aid and international charity.

Besides this humanitarian catastrophe, the government of Assad (who has been confirmed as President of the Republic for a fourth term) is facing an economic emergency that began after the first clashes in 2011 and has progressively worsened during the civil war.

According to the World Bank, the loss in terms of GDP between 2011 and 2016 was around 226 billion dollars, while the cost of destroying civilian housing and infrastructure exceeded 117 billion dollars.

The prices of basic necessities, such as food and fuel, have increased 20-fold compared to the period before the conflict, while the Syrian pound has progressively depreciated.

It is estimated that at least 70 per cent of the population currently lives below the poverty line and has limited food supply. According to World Vision International, life expectancy for Syrian children in 2021 has fallen by thirteen years.

The situation is further worsened by a huge water emergency: since last January, the water level of the Euphrates has dropped to the point that, due to the lack of water, the Tabqa and Tishreen dams risk closure, with severe damage to agriculture, electricity production and the supply of running water to the populations of the entire north-east region.

The Covid-19 pandemic has not spared this unfortunate country, although the official estimates of infected and dead people – albeit high – are not very reliable due to the impossibility for the health authorities to carry out the mass screening necessary to know the real extent of the contagion.

On the military front, the situation is still rather confused.

Government troops, with Russian and Iranian help, managed to inflict an almost definitive defeat on the ISIS militia.

The men of the Caliphate – after having been expelled from Aleppo, Palmyra and Raqqa (which had even been designated by Al Baghdadi as the capital of the Islamic State) – have partly fled to the Iraqi desert, from where they continue to carry out actions against the Iraqi forces, and have partly dispersed in small groups in the desert and mountainous area of Idlib and Deir Es Zor, in the so-called Aleppo-Hama-Raqqa triangle, where they continue a troublesome and sometimes bloody guerrilla warfare that has nothing to do with the overwhelming victories that brought them close to definitive military victory in 2014-2015.

Today ISIS is content with ambushing government military convoys and perpetrating extortion against the population trapped in the region, in view of self-financing for reasons of mere survival.

The Syrian army, however, is finding it increasingly difficult to definitively get rid of ISIS from the Syrian territory, both because of the difficulties connected with the need to effectively control a vast desert and mountainous area, and because it has not yet managed to completely defeat the Kurdish guerrillas of the “Syrian Democratic Forces”, still supported by the United States, and because it must also deal with the scattered Islamist armed formations of the “Syrian Liberation Army” supported by Turkey.

Therefore, despite having avoided the definitive defeat that seemed close between 2013 and 2015, Bashar al-Assad’s regime cannot easily and calmly tackle the problem of rebuilding the country.

After having secured his fourth term in office through elections (the outcome of which was a foregone conclusion because only Alawites and Christians voted massively for him, while the Sunnis mostly abstained or were “dissuaded” from taking part in the election), the Syrian President is trying to strengthen his government by reorganizing his security apparatus with fully trusted and loyal men.

Last May the President appointed his loyal General Jamal Mahmoud Younes as Head of the Committee for the Security of the Eastern Region, who is also responsible for the security of the Homs Governorate.

Younes, who comes from the Assad family’s “fief” of Latakia, is considered to be very close to the President’s brother, Maher al-Assad, under whose orders he served in the Fourth Armored Division from 2012 to 2013. Maher is considered to be very close to Iran and Russia.

Another prominent member of the new Syrian security apparatus is General Ramadan Yusef Al Ramadan, also an Alawite and subject to personal sanctions by the European Union – together with his colleague Younes – for his role in the repression of the first incidents in Deraa in 2011.

Ramadan has been appointed Head of the Security Committee of the Latakia Governorate, an extremely sensitive area because it is actually under Russian military control.

Assad therefore finds himself in the need to reconcile the difficult requirements of definitively defeating the insurgency, resolving the very severe economic situation and coexisting – as reasonably as possible – with the presence of two cumbersome allies, Russia and Iran, which – after having ensured his survival – seem determined to permanently establish themselves on Syrian territory.

Russia, whose help has been fundamental in preventing the collapse of the Damascus regime, continues to provide air and ground military support to the fight against the insurgents still active and to exploit the credit it has acquired with the regime to strengthen its presence in the region on a permanent basis.

In early June, the Russian Defence Minister authorized the start of works for the renovation of the Khmeimim air base in the Latakia region, after the runway had already been lengthened to support the fast traffic of Russian military vehicles (one aircraft per minute). The new airport was even used a few days ago for a mysterious mission that took a Russian aircraft to Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport.

This mysterious episode shows that Russia’s presence in the area could even be functional to the search for a stabilization of relations between Israel and Syria (President Putin has never made a secret of his sympathy for Israel).

The Iranian military presence in Syria is of a very different caliber and dangerousness for Israeli security.

Iran already has a strong military presence in the region: from the Lebanon – where Hezbollah politically and militarily controls the whole south of the country and the sensitive area bordering the Galilee – to Iraq, handed over to the pro-Iranian Shiites by George W. Bush with the 2003 war.

While, as reported by Israeli intelligence sources, the Iraqi nuclear program has resumed at full speed at the same time as the development of the capacity to construct modern ballistic missiles – effective also as carriers of nuclear warheads – over the next few years Syria could become – against its will – a dangerous nuclear outpost on the Israeli border.

A nightmarish prospect made even more worrying by the very recent election of a hardliner like Ayatollah Ebrahim Raisi as President of the Republic of Iran. A prospect that would not help Syria to get out of its decades-long crisis, but would bring it back to the front line in the confrontation with Israel, if Russia did not make its voice heard.

Giancarlo Elia Valori